Legislation was signed into law by Governor McCrory this summer that makes the Fonta Flora Loop Trail in Burke County the latest addition to North Carolina’s State Park System (which celebrates its centennial this year).
The Fonta Flora Loop Trail (formerly the Lake James Loop Trail) will encircle Lake James with a continuous 26-mile greenway and state-of-the-art hiking, recreational and nature trail when it is completed over the next few years. Much of the trail is completed already and the rest of the plan is scheduled for completion through 2018.
Lake James is located in the vicinity of Linville and Nebo, in the southern foothills of the Pisgah National Forest (also home to the picturesque town of Little Switzerland), lying 50 miles east of Asheville off I-40. The property is currently the site of Lake James Park, known for its various nature attractions and lakefront getaway vacation lodging. The lake has been part of the State Park System since 1987 and offers swimming, picnicking, canoeing, hiking and mountain biking trails, nature observation and other leisure and outdoor activities to the public.
The History of Lake James
Lake James is actually a large man-made chain of lakes that in an earlier time used to be a sleepy mountain community called Fonta Flora, when there was no lake. Like a scene from the movie O Brother Where Art Thou, the town of Fonta Flora and environs were completely flooded starting in 1916 to make way for hydroelectric power generation.
It all began 100 years ago when the Southern Power Company constructed dams around the regional watershed to generate electricity for the Catawba Valley. The lake, as we now know it, with its surface area of approximately 6,812 acres, took 7 years to fill naturally, from 1916 to 1923. Its rising waters eventually displaced a community of nearly a hundred sharecroppers as the valley slowly became a lake.
The hydroelectric plants that generated electricity were primarily intended to power the local tobacco and textile industries, but soon they brought the wonder of electricity to the homes of workers who lived near the factories. As this emerging technology became accepted and adopted rather than feared and resisted, the demand for electricity exploded, and so did the productivity it fueled. Inside of just two decades the company began supplying electricity to more than 300 cotton mills and various other factories, towns and small businesses, and even a streetcar system in Charlotte.1
The Southern Power Company was founded in 1905 by North Carolina tobacco tycoon James Buchanan Duke (1856–1925). As the company grew and increased its services, it eventually became today’s Duke Energy Corporation. The energy company now employs 28,000 people and serves 7.3 million retail electric customers, representing a population of about 23 million people in six states.2
James Lake remains a key part of Duke Power’s regional hydroelectric project called the Catawba-Wateree Hydro Project. The Project comprises 13 hydropower stations and 11 reservoirs, including James Duke’s namesake James Lake, Rhodhiss, Hickory, Lookout Shoals, Norman, Mountain Island, Wylie, Fishing Creek, Great Falls, Rocky Creek, and Wateree lakes. It spans over 200 river miles and encompasses around 1,700 miles of shoreline within nine counties in North Carolina and five counties in South Carolina and provides 841 megawatts of renewable hydropower and cooling water to more than 8,100 megawatts of fossil and nuclear generation.
The Flora Fonta Loop Trail will benefit from the ongoing operation, maintenance, conservation and funding that is will receive as a part of the State Park System. The North Carolina State Parks System exists for the enjoyment, education, health and inspiration of citizens and visitors.
The State Park System
According to the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation, the mission of the state parks system is to conserve and protect representative examples of the natural beauty, ecological features and recreational resources of statewide significance; to provide outdoor recreational opportunities in a safe and healthy environment; and to provide environmental education opportunities that promote stewardship of the state’s natural heritage.
The parks system encompasses more than 225,000 acres and attracts more than 15 million visitors each year. State parks protect North Carolina’s natural heritage, educates citizens about how to be responsible environmental stewards, and offers a great variety of recreational opportunities for enjoyment and health benefits. Our parks also contribute significantly to the state’s tourism economy.3
The Division of Parks and Recreation, which manages the state park system, receives funding from primarily three sources: the North Carolina Parks and Recreation Trust Fund (PARTF); the grant component of the North Carolina Trails Program; and the Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).
To help advance the project to completion, Duke Energy has promised $1.1 million in grants to build out the Flora Fonta Loop Trail. Burke County officials have said the money from Duke Energy will be released when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issues the company’s re-licensing to operate its hydroelectric power plants along the Catawba River.
The state park system would also receive a financial boost from the $2.85 billion Connect NC bond proposal. Bond approval in a special election would result in $67.3 million for capital and land acquisition projects at 28 state parks.
“We are very excited for this capital infusion in state parks, and I think our population will really benefit from the new visitor centers, new campgrounds, new trails and new day use facilities,” said Mike Murphy, State Parks Director. “It will be a wide range of new opportunities for our citizens and visitors to enjoy the parks.”4
Here’s a complete list of North Carolina’s State Parks:
Central Region: Carvers Creek State Park, Eno River State Park, Falls Lake State Recreation Area, Jordan Lake State Recreation Area, Kerr Lake State Recreation Area, Lumber River State Park, Mayo River State Park, Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area, Raven Rock State Park, Weymouth Woods-Sandhills Nature Preserve, William B. Umstead State Park
Eastern Region: Cliffs of the Neuse State Park, Dismal Swamp State Park, Goose Creek State Park, Jones Lake State Park, Lake Waccamaw State Park, Merchants Millpond State Park, Medoc Mountain State Park, Pettigrew State Park, Singletary Lake State Park
Western Region: Chimney Rock State Park, Crowders Mountain State Park, Gorges State Park, Grandfather Mountain State Park, Hanging Rock State Park, Lake James State Park, Lake Norman State Park, Mount Jefferson State Natural Area, Mount Mitchell State Park, Morrow Mountain State Park, New River State Park, Pilot Mountain State Park, South Mountains State Park, Stone Mountain State Park
Lake James Trivia
Finally, here’s some fascinating trivia about Lake James from the 2011 Lake James Trailhead Newsletter:
- James Buchanan Duke is the founder of Lake James, hence the name. He got his start in the tobacco industry, establishing the American Tobacco Company, supplying 40% of the tobacco in the American cigarette market. The monopoly was later shut down in 1911 by the U.S. Supreme Court when they ordered that the company be broken up.
- Duke Energy, the founding entity of Lake James, got its start in 1905 as Southern Power Company, which converted to Duke Power, and was later named Duke Energy. Its founder, James B. Duke, started the company as a way to supply electricity to his textile factory.
- Lake James was the home of the Fonta Flora Community before the area was dammed up and turned into a lake.
- Fonta Flora Community had a Post Office, Rhyne School, and Old Sardis Church of 1838; whose members moved to Linville Methodist when Lake James was created.
- In memory of the lost community, Lake James Cellars Winery produces a “Fonta Flora Blush.”
- The creation of Lake James was started in 1916 and completed in 1923.
- The Linville and Catawba Rivers, as well as, Paddy’s Creek are the responsible sources of the creation of Lake James.
- At full pond, Lake James sits at an elevation of 1200 ft. above sea level. Lake James has 150 miles of shoreline, 6,510 acres of surface area, and a maximum depth of 120 ft.
- The largest blue catfish caught on Lake James was nearly recordbreaking. Weighing 74 pounds 12 ounces and measuring 46¼ inches long, the giant was caught by Ervin Smith of McDowell County in 2010.
- Lake James is home to a small species of freshwater jellyfish. But don’t worry…they don’t sting!
- The face of Shortoff Mountain was created during the flooding of 1916, during which 37.6 in of rain fell on the Linville Gorge over a 2-day period. Prior to the floods washing away the terrain and exposing the rugged face of Shortoff, it appeared as more of a rounded off mountain.
- The names local-area names, Nebo and Pisgah were both Biblical references,
- relating to Mt. Nebo which was located in the Pisgah Mountain range as stated in the Bible. Nebo started off as a Methodist Campground, then a train depot, and was eventually established in 1909.
- Two movies have been filmed on/around Lake James; “The Last of the Mohicans” and “Hunt for Red October”
- Duke University Library, “James Buchanan Duke (1856-1925)”
- Duke Energy, “Fact Sheet”
- Division of Parks & Recreation, “Governor McCrory celebrates 100th anniversary of legislation establishing N.C.’s first state park”
- N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation, “The Steward Digest — Volume 2 Number 4 (July 2015)“